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  • Writer's pictureVicki Manning

Everything you need to know about loose parts play

Regulars on my Instagram account will know that we are HUGE fans of loose parts - I'm going to explain what loose parts are, why we love them, and how you can incorporate them into your child's play.

What are loose parts?

“As long as materials can be moved, redesigned, put together, and taken apart in a variety of ways, they are classified as loose parts.”
Simon Nicholson

Have you ever built a den in the woods or made sandcastles at the beach? If the answer is yes, then you've played with loose parts!

The term 'loose parts' was coined by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970s. He made the connection between materials and their ability to empower children to explore and create.

Loose parts are any open-ended object, natural or man-made, that can be used by children to play.

Open-ended means that there is no pre-determined or specific use for them. So they provide endless opportunities for creative experimentation!

"In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it."

Simon Nicholson

Nicholson argued that having a diverse selection of open-ended materials can really ignite a child's imagination. Giving children these open-ended opportunities encourages them to manipulate their environment and this will pave the way for creative and divergent thinking later in life.

Mr 5 saw pegs, gemstones and lolly sticks and thought person!

Whilst Nicholson popularised the idea of using loose parts and it is now widely adopted by early years' professionals across the globe, giving children loose parts for creative play is by no means a new idea, and the benefits of open-ended materials had already been long-established by practitioners of Reggio Emilia and the Montessori Method...

“The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences.”
Loris Malaguzzi

In his writings at the end of the Second World War, the father of the Reggio Emilia Approach, Loris Malaguzzi, understood the importance of open-ended materials.

The Reggio Emilia Approach is a philosophy of learning unique to pre-schools in Northern Italy, which empowers children to think, question, investigate, and explore. Loose parts are organised and presented in a way which is both inspiring and easy to access, such as in baskets and on open shelves.

The approach has been influential in settings across the globe, and thousands of early years' practitioners have now adopted some degree of Reggio-inspired practice.

“The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.”
Dr Maria Montessori

Where Malaguzzi could be seen as the father of teaching, Montessori is arguably the mother.

In her philosophy of education, The Montessori Method, written at the beginning of the 20th Century, Montessori is a keen advocate of open-ended materials and for children to be self-directed in their learning. She explains how a child's innate curiosity can be encouraged by providing lots of hands-on learning opportunities.

Like in the Reggio approach, natural materials are used extensively for creating, but loose parts are used in more structured learning invitations than Reggio. For example, you may give your child a flash card and loose parts to trace it or make a puzzle with natural materials.

loose parts play with gemstones, reggio emilia and montessori approach

Why we love loose parts play

I was introduced to loose parts play by the brilliant @stimulatinglearningwithrachel, when looking for ideas to entertain my 3 year old whilst his brother was at school. On a late night trawl through Pinterest, I saw how, in her early years' setting, loose parts were an integral part of their learning, from animals to arithmetic, food to phonics.

Scrolling through her activities I saw how she had an enviable collection of beautiful objects for the children to play and create with. Things that I had never considered giving to my kids, such as gems, pebbles, buttons and pegs.

I immediately started running around the house looking for bits and pieces I could use (much to the amusement of Mr Howweplayandlearn). I found a little tray that was perfect for displaying items and in the morning tentatively presented Mr 3 with this and some old CDs.

loose parts mandala, reggio emilia, howweplayandlearn

I wasn't sure whether he would like his 'tinker tray'... Luckily, he and his big brother loved it and they created some beautiful patters together.

One the best things about loose parts is they're not age or gender specific!

This little tray of goodies kept a 3 year old, a 7 year old and a 30-something year old (ahem) for over an hour!

We all got something different from it:

  • Mr 3 developed fine motor skills by handling and stacking materials

  • Mr 7 counted objects and used the language of shape

  • Mrs 30-something found it a lovely bit of mindfulness

I began to see how, because there are an infinite number of combinations and uses for loose parts, they don't get bored as they often do with regular 'close-ended' toys.

After this I started collecting things with a passion, trawling car boot sales, and returning from walks with pockets full of 'goodies'.

After a few months we had a lovely collection to inspire play and creativity.

silver, shiny, loose parts play
This mirror, sugar bowl, jelly mould and flan dish were pennies at a car boot sale
mosaic tiles, loose parts
Mosaic tiles make a colourful invitation
loose parts, twine, pegs, corks
Loose parts don't have to be unusual, many household objects are perfect.

Loose parts have become an everyday part of our play, and whilst we do not have the space to have them on permanent display (we have a baby brother to think about), there are always loose parts available for play sessions and creative learning.

The learning potential of loose parts

What I love the most about loose parts is that you don't need to come up with fancy ideas for what to do with them. You can just leave a selection of baskets out and let the learning and creativity naturally flow.

So loose parts are perfect for a slightly frazzled, sleep-deprived mum!

And not only do loose parts inspire creativity and unstructured play, but they also help your child to develop in every area. What's not to love about that?

The learning potential of loose parts play

Taking loose parts outdoors

"By allowing learning to take place outdoors, and fun and games to occur indoors, the distinction between education and recreation begin to disappear."
Simon Nicholson

Loose parts play is by no means exclusive to the indoors. It's just as, if not more, important to have creative play and learning opportunities outside. And nature is one of the best providers of materials, ever changing with the seasons.

"Nature, which excites all the senses, remains the richest source of loose parts."
Richard Louv

Like indoors play, it doesn't call for expensive or hard-to-find materials. Sticks, stones, boxes, crates, planks of wood, pieces of guttering, wood stumps, seeds... All of these are perfect as outdoor loose parts and they can either be had for free or thrifted.

Obviously, if you only have a small outdoor space you can't have a tower of milk crates, it's not practical! But there are ways to incorporate loose parts into any outside space.

We have a small garden, but I have found room for a couple of cable reels that I picked up for free from a local builders merchants, some wooden planks, large sticks, pebbles, pinecones and a selection of old pots and pans. When the weather's nice I raid our loose parts box and pop a few baskets outside.

Loose parts play outdoors

If you don't have access to a garden, then why not take some loose parts to your local park or woodland? Or use things as you go along! We often pick up bits and pieces on our walks to create transient art; leaving it behind for others to enjoy.

Plastic lids, loose parts

Getting started with loose parts play

If I've convinced you of the wonder that is loose parts and you're tempted to start collecting, here are some tips:

1. Start thinking about what loose parts you already have at home.

2. Try to recycle and repurpose items as much as possible. Lids for example - any time we finish milk, juice, coffee etc, I wash the lid up before putting the rest in the recycling. And old necklaces make a great source of beads! Loose parts don't have to be small things either - boxes, tubes, anything you have space for.

3. Visit car boot sales, thrift stores and charity shops - we've found loads of interesting loose parts really cheaply this way.

4. Invest in a decent-sized tub which can be stored somewhere practical. Having a central place to keep all your loose parts will help you to rotate the materials. We have a Really Useful box stored in our under-stairs cupboard.

5. Ziplocs are your best friend! I know single use plastic isn't ideal, but we have been using the same bags to separate our different kinds of loose parts for several years, and it makes setup and tidy away so much easier.

6. If you want to add to your collection, visit the howweplayandlearn shop.

7. A tinker tray is a lovely way to display your favourite loose parts - we have one with a lid that Mr 5 likes to get out from time to time.

8. Try a book or two for a little inspiration - we love this one as it's full of great pictures:

9. Or use our checklists, with ideas for loose parts in six areas - recycling, household, wood, metal, texture and nature.

The most important tip I can give is, find time to join in! Your child will see your interest and want to copy you. Curiosity and creativity are so important as they drive children's learning, critical thinking and reasoning - and if you tinker with loose parts it will inspire your child to do the same. Plus it's really relaxing!

Some notes on safety

Loose parts play is generally very safe, and it gives children vital experience in managing risks, but there are some things you will need to consider to ensure a safe environment:

* Some loose parts are not safe for children under three as their size and shape can present a choking hazard or cause injury to eyes.

* Young or developmentally delayed children should always be supervised.

* Loose parts need to be clean, non-toxic and free from sharp edges.

If you have concerns about a younger sibling at home, you could time loose parts play for when they're napping, or consider using things that are more 'baby safe' such as wooden bangles, large lids and cardboard tubes.

That's it! I hope feel inspired to give it a go. Trust me, once you start it's so addictive - you'll never look at a box of junk the same way again! Happy tinkering...


Have you tried playing with loose parts? I'd love to hear how you got on!


For more playful and creative learning ideas visit:



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